The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Nineteen - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”

 Well, the United States Postal Service has finally come through for me and delivered my hard copy of the 1001 Movies book. It’s definitely worth the 20 bucks or so that Amazon has the latest edition running for. Film critics have written some short context and analysis for each of the 1001 films, and it’s a nice resource for any film buff or really just anyone looking to learn more about movies. Perhaps it will help me understand some of these stranger works when the Internet comes up empty. Anyway, on to the review.

I would consider the horror genre to be one of my favorites. It gets a bad rep these days for repetitive plots and lack of strong ideas. Every year, a few big winners make their way into the horror genre, but I would say it is one of the least innovative types of film right now. This is a shame, because a good horror movie has the potential to be some of the coolest cinematography out there. There is limitless potential for these things, and people love to be terrified. I’d imagine it’s a fun type of project to work on. One of the first full length horror films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still holds up as one of the most innovative and fascinating in the history of horror.

I had always been meaning to check out this movie, among some of the other early horror classics. I was truly impressed by how much creativity went into the production. The plot is entirely original and chilling, which I want to discuss in a bit, but I feel that the strongest element of the film is its visuals. Every single backdrop is distorted and jagged. Doorways and windows are oddly shaped and crooked, and it is something you don’t see in movies anymore. Horror these days always wants to be based in reality under the idea that the familiar is terrifying. While certainly true, I feel that scary movies these days could take a fantastic turn if they took a lesson from Caligari. The movies are already ridiculous, so why not make them look strange? Things don’t have to look normal. This entire film feels like a dream sequence, which works on a cool level as it mirrors the actual “dream” element of the plot. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari creates a twisted fantasy world to tell this story, and I feel it is the most fascinating thing about this movie. Artistic visual choices are everywhere, and we could certainly use more of this vision in the genre today.

The plot is also incredibly unique, both for 1920 and today. It’s interesting that this film is German, as many of my favorite horror films today (Goodnight Mommy, Funny Games, Let the Right One In, among others) come from Central Europe. There is an element of strangeness that comes out of horror in this region, and it is so successful. Anyone who has seen this film was likely blown away by the ending. It’s the first major twist ending in cinema, and it really is astounding for such an early work. The script also touches on countless important themes such as the notions of identity and control, but it also makes wider allegorical commentary on authority (and fascism by extension).

Silent films are really an admirable art form. Many people won’t give these movies a chance simply because they have to read the text on the screen, and everything just looks fake. While that latter part does make it a bit harder to appreciate these movies today, it is incredible to think about what the film manages to accomplish under such constraints. Only keep pieces of dialogue are included, which forces the script to be tight. You won’t find many films that move along at such a swift, focused pace as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Something like Shutter Island tells the exact same story and takes almost an hour longer to do it. Silent films always have these swift plots that are a breath of fresh air with the slow, deliberateness of modern cinema (looking at you, Inarritu).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is really just proof that cutting-edge cinema has come out of every decade, and it doesn’t take modern special effects to make a scary movie. This film is an intelligent, chilling story with some of the most innovative direction in cinematic history considering physical constraints of 1920. Perhaps one day, American filmmakers will take a look at the offbeat style that Caligari presents and craft some new stories that reflect this vision. It probably won’t happen, but we can hope.



Films Left to Watch: 982

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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3 Responses to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

  1. Pingback: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) | 1001 Film Reviews

  2. I am happy you like Dr. Caligari. This was the movie that convinced me that silent movies are worth watching.
    If you ever happen to come by Berlin you shold visit the film museum there. It has an entire section devoted to Dr. Caligari with sets, props, anecdotes and all set up in that twisted design of the movie. Of course the museum also have the android from Metropolis, the coat from Der Letzte Man and much else, A stellar exhibition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Travis says:

      Wow that sounds phenomenal; I’d love to see it. Sad to say I’ve still yet to see Metropolis. It’s on the list of course, and I hope to get to it soon.

      I’m also in the same boat with Caligari. It was the first unapologetically artistic silent film I saw, and it made me really excited to see more films that toy with the “constraints” of that type of filmmaking.

      Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate your insight!


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